Dr Thomas Neill Cream was a convicted international murderer, more commonly referred to as the Lambeth Poisoner. On the day of his execution in London, the last words he uttered were believed to be a confession to the infamous unsolved murders of Jack the Ripper. His claims were never substantiated, and he had never been named as an official suspect in police investigations – so was there any truth behind his confession?
Cream was born in Glasgow in 1850, however, most of his childhood years were spent in Canada as his family moved there when he was just four years old. Not a lot is known of his early years, but he graduated from the McGill University in Montreal as a Doctor of Medicine in 1876. Following this, he also trained in St Thomas’s Hospital in London and then went on to obtain extra qualifications as both a physician and a surgeon in Edinburgh, before he returned to Canada.
Despite his seemingly legitimate credentials as a medical professional, his personal life was rife with numerous women, pregnancies and even blackmail and extortion.
In 1886, Cream met Flora Elizabeth Brooks while studying in Canada. On paper, the trainee medical professional and the daughter of a hotel proprietor had everything going for them, however, this relationship soon hit the rocks when Brooks discovered she was pregnant. Cream performed an abortion on Brooks, almost killing her in the process. Her father demanded that they marry, and they did in September of 1876.
Brooks died in 1877, initially to have been caused by Tuberculosis, however, years later, Cream would be held responsible for her death.
On his return to Canada having completed his medical training and qualifications in Great Britain, Cream set himself up as an abortionist. He was relatively successful until the body of a young woman, Kate Gardener, was discovered close to his office next to a bottle of chloroform. Despite the evidence, Cream was not charged with her murder. Following his near-miss, Cream relocated to Chicago.
Undeterred by the death of Gardener, Cream set up another medical practice in the red-light district of Chicago, offering the local prostitutes illegal abortions. Over the next year and a half, a number of other women died under his care; Mary Anne Faulkner and Miss Stack. In the case of Miss Stack, it is thought that Cream tried to blackmail a pharmacist who filled the prescription which led to her death. In both instances, Cream got away with murder due to a lack of evidence which only led to more bodies.
Alice Montgomery was found dead in April 1881 of strychnine poisoning following an abortion close by to Cream’s office. Although the inquiry into her death was never solved, it is believed that Cream was involved.
Alongside the abortions, Cream also marketed his own epilepsy elixir, and for some time he had done so successfully, with a number of patients who swore by it. This success was short-lived, however, when a patient Daniel Stott sent his wife to collect this treatment on his behalf. Stott soon became suspicious that she was having an affair with Cream and, to evade confrontation on the matter, he added strychnine to the medicine and Stott soon died. His death was ruled as epilepsy-related and it appeared that, once again, Cream had gotten away with murder.
He would be his own undoing, however, as he wrote to the coroner demanding the body be exhumed, looking to place blame on the pharmacist. The body was eventually exhumed, the poison was found in his stomach. Dr Cream was arrested along with Stott’s wife. While she avoided jail, he was found guilty and imprisoned in Illinois State Penitentiary in Joliet for life.
Despite the life sentence, Cream was released just 10 years later in July 1891 on the grounds of good behaviour. After collecting inheritance from his father’s death, he left America for good and settled in the East End of London, England in October 1891.
Prostitution, poverty and crime were commonplace at the time, so it didn’t take Cream long to settle into life in London. Over the weeks that followed, he met two prostitutes – Ellen Donworth and Matilda Clover, both of whom died within days of meeting him. Donworth was poisoned with strychnine and, although Clover was initially thought to have died of alcoholism, her death was later ruled as poisoning, too. In both murders, Cream tried to blackmail and extort cash from prominent figures (the owner of WH Smith bookstalls, and Dr William Broadbent respectively) who he claimed had been behind the killings. Cream escaped detection for both of these murders and was free to kill again.
After a short break back to Canada, Cream returned to London and immediately set upon his next victims. In April 1892, Cream met Lou Harvey (also known as Louise Harris) and he tried to poison her. She was wary of him, and secretly disposed of the pills he offered her while pretending to take them. A little over a week later, he met a further two prostitutes – Alice Marsh and Emma Shrivell. He offered both of these girls drinks laced with strychnine but left before they died.
The newspapers were full of stories about “The Lambeth Poisoner” victims, however, Matilda Clover had never been mentioned in connection with the serial killer as her death was not initially believed to have been a poisoning. It was through his anonymous letter regarding the Clover murder that made police suspicious that she too was a victim.
As he had done in Chicago, Cream drew attention to the murders he had already gotten away with, by writing letters accusing others of the deaths of these women. Cream continued to draw attention to himself by offering a tour of the murder sites to a New York tourist, who also happened to be a policeman. He informed the local police, he decided to put him under surveillance. In conjunction with his habits for visiting prostitutes and discussions with American police, they concluded that Dr Cream was indeed the Lambeth Poisoner.
An inquest into Clover’s death returned a verdict that she had, in fact, died at the hands of Cream as a result of strychnine poisoning and not alcoholism as previously thought. At the hearing, a letter claiming Dr Cream’s innocence was read out, supposedly written by the infamous and at large Jack the Ripper.
In July 1892, Cream was arrested and charged with the murders of Clover, Donworth, Marsh, Shrivell, as well as the attempted murder of Lou Harvey and several counts of extortion. He was put to trial in October that year. The jury deliberated for less than fifteen minutes before finding him guilty on all charges and he was sentenced to death.
On 15th November 1892, Dr Thomas Neill Cream was killed by hanging.
The hangman, James Billington, later went on record stating that Cream’s last words were “I am Jack the…” although the sentence was never finished. No other officials present could corroborate his claims, and as Cream was in an Illinois prison at the time of the notorious Jack the Ripper killings, it is widely believed that Billington said this so that he himself could claim that he hung the infamous Jack the Ripper.
While on the face of his backstory, it seems unlikely that Cream was Jack the Ripper, there are reports to the contrary.
People including Ripperologist Donald Bell believe that Cream was released from prison much earlier than 1891, with corrupt officials having been bribed to let him out early and doctor the paperwork accordingly. Others speculate that Dr Cream’s handwriting matched the handwriting of at least two of the Ripper letters.
Others believe that Cream worked in conjunction with a lookalike and together they took it in turns to provide the other with alibis while out committing crime. It is thought that Cream was charged with bigamy in his earlier years but refused to plead guilty on the basis he was in Sydney at the time. Low and behold, a witness confirmed that someone who fit his description was in Australia at the time. The theory concludes that Cream confessed before his hanging to relieve any suspicion on his lookalike for the Jack the Ripper killings that were committed while he was locked up in Illinois.
Sceptics of the theory that Dr Cream was the real Jack the Ripper claim that it is highly unlikely that these claims would hold any truth because like Seweryn Klosowski (also known as George Chapman), Cream opted to poison all of his known victims rather than mutilate them like the Ripper.
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